During and before the First World War, between the year 1914 and 1918, there were many recruitment banners, recruitment poems, and many other ways to encourage young men to go to war. When the war began in August 1914, Britain relied only on a small professional force, unlike most other European and Global countries that had very large conscript armies. During this time, young men had huge official and unofficial social pressures on their shoulders until conscription was enforced in Britain midway through the First World War in the year 1916.
Streets became full of war recruitment posters and banners, and nearly all newspapers gave space for many war recruitment poems. One poem by Harold Begbie called Fall In, which first appeared in the Daily Chronicle on 31 August 1914, just a short while after the start of the war, became hugely popular. It was then published in many other newspapers, like other poems, and encouraged many young men to conscript. It became so popular that it was even set to music and sung in music halls. Posters and badges were also made, which were related to the poem and wrote, ‘Sing the Song! Wear the Badge! Play the March!’ The reason why this poem became so popular is because it related to the reader, it was very colloquial, using the word “sonny” and talking about how girls will think the men are heroes when they go to war.
These recruitment poems began to make war very appealing to the young men as it gave them false but delighting and very appealing details about war. This is how Britain’s army was relatively large even before conscription was enforced.
Jessie Pope was one of these poets who made war seem very exciting, more like a game or a spectacle rather than a war. She was very good at what she did as she made the poem relate to the average person, her poem is neatly organised with four stanzas, each containing four lines and all with the same rhyme scheme, her poem is very colloquial and simple to understand and therefore relates to everyone and she also makes war seem appealing and enjoyable.
After the First World War however, there were many soldier poets who began to write poems that were unappealing, disencouraging, and mainly very negative towards war, as they had experienced it for themselves. One of the more famous of these poets is Wilfred Owen. He despised Jessie Pope and other poets who gave a false image of war and made it seem enjoyable and exciting, more like a game, whereas Owen saw the war from a first hand perspective, rather than from the relative safety of the Home Front and it wasn’t how Pope described it.
Already in the title, Jessie Pope makes war seem like a game, “Who’s for the Game?” It is a question directed to the readers, in a sense, asking them if they’re ‘up to the challenge’. Her four stanzas are very neatly organized, each containing four lines. This precise organization is how Jessie Pope pictures war, although imprecise, it is a pull factor for the reader, encouraging them to join the war. She makes war seem like a game, more specifically, a game of rugby, “the red crashing game of a fight”. Rugby is a men’s game, which used to be regarded just as a gentlemen’s game, this is the first appeal to war, given to the reader. She then makes the reader feel guilty of not enlisting to the army as she says, “and who thinks he’d rather sit tight?”
She then puts more guilt in the reader in the second stanza when she asks, “Who’ll give his country a hand…and who wants a seat in the stand?” This is a patriotic sentiment. Asking if anyone wants a seat in the stand is implying that if they don’t go to war, they’ll miss out on all the action and the fun. She also makes war seem like a piece of theatre or a spectacle, “Who wants a turn to himself in the show?”
In the third stanza she makes holding a gun an exciting prospect of war, “…Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?” Pope then makes war injuries good and a sign that you’ve fought in the war and something to be proud of, and then, again, she makes the reader more guilty by asking, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch than lie low and be out of the fun?” She makes the war more appealing and enjoyable and if you don’t sign up, you’ll miss out.
The first three stanzas are all questions directed at the reader, making them feel
guilty of not going to war and making the war very appealing. The fourth stanza does not contain any questions but makes the reader feel guilty again. Firstly, Pope uses the words “lads”, which is very colloquial and more direct to the reader and the average person. Then she personifies Britain as being a woman “up to her neck in fight” which will make the men feel guilty and very protective over their country and in most cases will encourage and persuade many young men to enlist. Pope’s attitude towards war is very superficial. As she hasn’t had any experience of war, she doesn’t really know what it’s all about and therefore gives a false, biased, but appealing image of war to the reader.
Wilfred Owen however, takes on a whole different approach to how he presents war. He was an ex-soldier of the first world war and wrote poems to discourage people going to war as it wasn’t what it was said to be like. Owen gives a very dark, dull, depressing and horrid image of war, he isn’t afraid to tell it how it is.
Owen’s poem also contains four stanzas, except they are not of equal lengths. The third stanza is the shortest, and then comes the second, then the first and the fourth stanza is the longest. Owen does this to present war as chaotic and very disorganized. There is also another reason for this, which I will explain in due course.
In the first stanza, Owen gives us the impression that the soldiers have a low morale, this makes the reader share their feelings too. The soldiers’ physical appearance is dirty, unkempt, and dishevelled “like old beggars”. Being beggars, this could also suggest that they are malnourished and have no decent food. The soldiers’ postures are submissive, “bent double” as they have been walking for extensive periods of time. The soldiers’ are seen as dispensable, unimportant, and insignificant “like old beggars…like hags”. There is obvious illness and disability, “knock-kneed, coughing”. These are onomatopoeic words; this makes the suffering clearer to the reader. The morale of all the soldiers is low, “cursed through sludge”.
Already in the first three lines, the horrors of war are emerging and so are the soldiers’ feelings as a whole, unlike Pope’s poem. The soldiers show resignation, despair, and are already giving up, “haunting flares we turned our backs”. The inevitability of death is also presented early on in the poem, “distant rest”. The soldiers are all tired and fatigued, “men marched asleep”. This is a metaphor to show that the soldiers are extremely exhausted. The soldiers are all extremely tired, their boots have worn out and “many had lost their boots”. The soldiers are also covered in blood, “Blood-shod”. This is a pun from the word ‘bloodshot’ meaning full of blood. The soldiers can’t even walk properly, they “all went lame”. They cannot see properly either; they’re “all blind”.
The soldiers are tottering along, not walking straight due to weariness, “drunk with fatigue”. They are all making clumsy movements due to sleep deprivation, “tired, outstripped Five-Nines”. The “Five-Nines” are the bombs, but the bombs are described as being like the soldiers, “tired, outstripped”, they are personified. The bombs are overworking, there are too many of them dropped, and they are getting fed-up like the soldiers are. The soldiers have become accustomed to the sound of the repetitive, boring bombs falling that they block them out; they become “deaf even to the hoots of…Five-Nines”. The whole of the first stanza is the second longest as the soldiers are waiting and anticipating, it is all very boring and tiring. Owen describes the soldiers as being tired, ill, fed-up, very pessimistic, and totally exhausted and that none of them want to be there at all.
The second stanza is a chlorine gas attack and here the pace increases and the stanza is relatively shorter than the others as it all happens very fast. The punctuation in this stanza decreases to aid its quick pace. The endless waiting in stanza one is over and now, something has happened suddenly. The “GAS!” is in capital letters to show the fear, terror, and panic. The “Ecstasy” is not describing extreme enjoyment, but a mental state of alienation, the soldiers’ minds become disconnected, and there are extreme emotions, mainly of panic.
Now Owen zooms in on one specific person rather than the whole group, unlike Jessie Pope who made everything seem as a team game. In reality, it is every man for himself, if one gets in trouble, he cannot be helped. “Someone still was yelling out and stumbling, and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime”. This is a simile and is the most intimate part of the poem as it concentrates on one man and his terrible pain and suffering, the man is getting stuck, stalling, and struggling. The visors of the gas masks are being blocked by the chlorine gas and are described as, “the misty panes”. Then, the man is struggling and looks as if he is “drowning…under a green sea”. The “green sea” is a simile, describing the look of the chlorine gas. Its movement and thickness makes it look as if it were a sea. The man’s movements are heavy limbed, like underwater movement; he is gasping for air but the chlorine gas is filling up his lungs, like water would, and it is excruciatingly painful.
The third stanza is the shortest of them all. It is only two lines and describes the man’s quick and painful death. This stanza, along with the last, are the two that zoom into the single man’s suffering. Owen, unlike Pope, makes war injuries sound devastating, which is what they are like in reality. Owen starts off with a very personal view, “In all my dreams”. It links to the last line of the previous stanza as it describes what Owen saw and felt for himself. He becomes very involved and the word “my” appears twice in that one line, “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight”; it’s the poets’ worst nightmare. The actions from the man are desperate as he is desperate, he tries to get Owen’s help, “he plunges at me”. The three last words all contain very harsh consonant sounds, which make them sound that much more powerful, and distressing, “guttering, choking, drowning”. Owen is frustrated and helpless as he watches this man die. The word “drowning” is at the end of this stanza and the last one, making it more emphasised. This stanza is very short and emotional as it contains lots of emotions compacted into two lines, making it very powerful.
The last stanza is the longest as it talks about the dead man and his injuries; making the stanza long will therefore stress that these injuries are extremely horrific and gruesome. Now Owen is talking directly to the reader, using the word “you”, trying to get the reader to imagine what it is really like. The “smothering dreams” means that the dreams are suffocating dreams, completely covered up. The soldiers discard the dead man quickly and without care, “we flung him”. The images presented to the reader are strong, horrific, grotesque, and worst of all, real, “white eyes writhing in his face”. The soldiers face is compared to “a devil’s sick of sin”. This is another simile; it is a devil-like image. The alliteration on the letter ‘s’, known as sibilance, sounds like a snake. The snake is associated with evil and so is the war. Owen then shows his anger at Pope and trying to tell the reader how bad it all is, “If you could hear”.
There is a slow motion, movie-like image created in the next two lines, where Owen describes the man’s horrific injuries. The words used are, again, strong and contain harsh consonants, “Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud”. The alliteration on ‘c’ represents Owen’s fury and outrage. The body is rotting, they are terminal illnesses and they are incurable; there is no way in reversing the process of a gas attack, death is to be expected. Towards the end, Owen directs his poem to Pope, trying to make her change her artificial views on war. He says, “My friend”; this sounds very sarcastic, colloquial and friendly but it isn’t because of what Owen is talking about. He tells her that she shouldn’t tell people, “with such high zest” that war is glorious like Pope does, there is no glory in war, “children ardent for some desperate glory”. Owen tells the reader and Pope that it is not sweet and proper to die for your country; it is bad to do so. He is unpatriotic and tries to reverse propaganda, “The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”